Some kids had abscesses, a few were in pain, and one teenager had never been to a dentist before.

Tucson dentist Dr. Chris Chin barely had a moment to talk Thursday as he and the rest of the staff at Southwest Kids Dentistry tried to meet high demand for the office’s one day of free care for kids.

“We try to take care of the urgent needs or suggest where they can go,” Chin said. “A lot of them haven’t ever seen a dentist.”

The day of free care, aimed at kids without dental insurance, was part of the American Dental Association’s Give Kids a Smile Day. Arizona families continue to struggle to find affordable dental care and as a result, children have a high rate of dental problems. Thirty percent of Arizona children do not have dental insurance coverage, the Arizona Department of Health Services says.

One father, who works at a local restaurant, said he was relieved for the help on Thursday — he’d been waiting for his tax refund to take his two children to the dentist. Another visitor at the clinic was a 33-year-old local mom who says her disability checks are too high for her to qualify for AHCCCS, but not enough for her to afford dental insurance for her kids.

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Dr Chris Chin, standing, examines children with the help of several dental assistants as uninsured Tucson children receive free dental care at Southwest Kids Dentistry, 6970 N Oracle Rd., on Feb 9, 2017. Children were x-rayed, given an examination, a cleaning and if necessary a more extensive treatment. It was part of national Children's Dental Health Month. 

Tooth decay

A 2015 state “Healthy Smiles” survey found that tooth decay is the top chronic disease in Arizona children.

And a 2016 report by Phoenix-based First Things First found that more than half of Arizona kindergarten children have tooth decay, which is a higher level than the national average of 36 percent.

Arizona’s Medicaid program, a government health insurance program for low- income people, offers dental coverage for children, but parents don’t always know about that benefit, said Southwest Kids Dentistry office manager Kayla Luce.

Other families earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid, which in Arizona is called the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS). Some of those families might qualify for another Arizona government health insurance program called KidsCare, which started up again in September after an enrollment freeze.

But families may not even know that they qualify for KidsCare, said Luce, who said she’s been surprised that the clinic does not have any KidsCare patients. She also said a lot of the families seem to fall into a “notch group” where they are working and making too much to qualify for government programs but not enough to afford insurance.

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Giselle Alvarado, 2, has to open wide for dental assistant Krystina Delaney before she gets her teeth x-rayed as uninsured Tucson children receive free dental care at Southwest Kids Dentistry, 6970 N Oracle Rd., on Feb 9, 2017. Children were x-rayed, given an examination, a cleaning and if necessary a more extensive treatment. It was part of national Children's Dental Health Month. 

AHCCCS changes

The dental office, at 6970 N. Oracle Road, had 110 kids sign up for free care, and the phone was ringing steadily all morning with inquiries from other families. Some showed up at the door before the office opened at 8 a.m.

“We do different types of events all over the state and we see kids who are living in pain from infection. For the most part they don’t complain or cry about it,” said Ginger Froncek, executive director of the Arizona Dental Foundation.

Things are looking up on the oral-health front for Arizona children. Since 2010, First Things First has invested more than $23 million in efforts to prevent tooth decay in children and its 2016 report showed there have been some areas of improvement. The percentage of young Arizona children who have never been to a dentist is now about 10 percent, the report found, down from 25 percent in 2003.

Also, a House bill recently introduced in the Legislature would give pregnant women covered by AHCCCS up to $1,000 for dental care.

The bill, sponsored by Phoenix Democrat Kelli Butler, is expected to help prevent low birthweight babies, because gum disease can be passed to an unborn child, causing prematurity and illness, said Kevin Earle, executive director of the Arizona Dental Association.

“We want to keep moms as healthy as possible and educated about oral health — ultimately to develop a level of oral health literacy,” Earle said. “If moms know oral health is important, there are downstream benefits, to make sure that mom knows to have their baby seen by a dentist by the age of 1.”

Adults covered by AHCCCS do not have comprehensive dental care, though Gov. Doug Ducey in his executive budget has proposed restoring emergency dental coverage. AHCCCS has not provided emergency dental coverage or dentures to adult enrollees older than 21 since Oct. 1, 2010.

Earle said restoring the emergency care would be a good first step, though comprehensive dental care for adults on AHCCCS is the ideal. Most others states’ Medicaid programs have comprehensive dental coverage for adults, he said. Among other positive benefits, he said, adults who go to the dentist are more likely to take their children to get dental care.

Contact health reporter Stephanie Innes at 573-4134 or email sinnes@tucson.com On Twitter: @stephanieinnes